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7 Proven Ways to Get Ahead at Work

Businesswomen walking together outdoorsBusinesswomen walking together outdoors
Building strong relationships is one way to build your reputation. Paul Bradbury — Getty Images

So there you are, working hard and hoping to move up in your company. Sure, you can put in long hours, offer to help out on special projects, and learn new technical skills, but it’s tough to know what will give you an edge over everybody else who’s doing those things, too.

That's where Gallup comes in. In a gigantic effort to forecast the future of work, the polling and management consulting company studied data from almost 40 million employees and managers, including those in about 300 of the world's biggest companies, over a 30-year period. One result of that project, published in a new book called It's the Manager, is a list of the seven traits you need to succeed anywhere.

"We looked at the top performers in 559 jobs in a wide range of organizations across 18 industries, and this list is what they all have in common," says co-author Jim Harter, Gallup's chief workplace scientist.

These abilities are also a kind of long-term career insurance against becoming obsolete. "Artificial intelligence and automation are taking over more of the routine day-to-day tasks that most people don't want to do anyway," notes Harter. "But algorithms can't replace these seven traits."

Here are seven ways to stand out at work:

1. Build strong relationships. "Get to know your peers as individuals, and what their strengths and aspirations are, including how they differ from you and what complementary skills they might have," Harter suggests. At the same time, get to know your team's leader, and what his or her main goals are. "We see a strong trend toward collaborative goal-setting" among top performers, Harter says. Let your boss know what your own career goals are, and try to align them with hers.

2. Develop people. Making sure people are using all their skills, and picking up new ones, is traditionally part of what managers do. But that's changing. "In organizations now, employees need to be responsible for developing each other," says Harter. "That's one reason for the importance of solid relationships, so you know what your coworkers' goals are, and how you can help them or vice versa." Sometimes, he adds, something as small and simple as a pat on the back for a job well done can matter a lot —and you don't need to be a manager to offer it.

3. Lead change. Here's another role that used to be earmarked Managers Only, but isn't anymore. Industrial psychologists talk about something called change fatigue, where people have been through so many rounds of upheaval —often, but not always, driven by technology— that they're fed up with it and start resisting. (Sounds familiar?) Even if you're not a manager, you can stand out from your peers by "endorsing change, and leading by example," Harter says. "Help other people understand the reasons for the change, put it in context, and do your own work in a way that reflects it." Technology and work in general aren't going to stop evolving, so everyone needs to learn how to ride the tiger.

4. Inspire your peers. Do what, now? Cheering on your coworkers sounds idealistic, but the habit has a Machiavellian side, too. "Noticing and encouraging good work from people around you is part of creating a strong network," says Harter. "Recognition for effort and achievement is a basic human need, so if you give it to others, they will want to help you when you want to get something done." It's an important part of building your reputation, which Harter defines as "how people talk about you when you're not around." Beyond your technical abilities, he calls a shining reputation among your colleagues no less than "your best chance for advancing in the company."

5. Think critically. We're all bombarded with a constant stream of information, and we each have quirks and biases that affect how we process it. "Thinking critically helps you avoid bias," says Harter. "Know when to take a step back and consider other points of view." He points out that acknowledging your own limitations helps, too. "You may not have great analytical skills, for instance. But knowing who does, in your network, and when to call on that person to help you, can make all the difference."

6. Communicate clearly. Legendary investor and Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett recently told a TV interviewer that "people who communicate well, both in person and in writing, increase their value [at work] by at least 50%." Gallup's research suggests he's right, and it makes sense. You could have the world's most brilliant ideas, but only a knack for expressing them clearly and persuasively will get you anywhere.

7. Be accountable. "We've found that top performers want to be held accountable, because it helps build their reputations," Harter says. Being reliable and following through on promises is only one part of accountability, however. Another is asking for feedback from both your boss and the people around you. "It's hard to get noticed, and get ahead, if you don't get a clear idea of how you're doing now," Harter notes, adding that this is another crucial aspect of creating a great in-house network. Asking others to rate our performance can be hard, because we're not sure what we'll hear, but "strong relationships based on trust make it much easier to accept criticism."

Whatever else you do, be sure to request frequent feedback from your boss, he adds. "You don't want to get all the way to the end of the quarter, or the end of the year, and find out you've been on the wrong track." Too true.

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